The Quiet American

quiet-american
“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

I really loved Graham Greene’s The Quiet American even though the tone and the main character so differed from favorites like Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet or Gaskell’s Margaret Hale or any 19th century novel that I treasure.

Yes, the two world wars left a stamp of jaundice and cynicism on Europe and Greene shows that (in many of his works). Yet I think he’s insightful and observant. Somehow while the main character Fowler, cynical, selfish and tapped out, earned my sympathy because he was honest with himself. I guess the similar sorts I’ve run across aren’t.

I like how Greene plays Fowler’s cynicism off Pyle’s (the chatty, “Quiet” American) innocence. By connecting them through Phuong, Fowler’s mistress whom Pyle falls for and takes. Through Phuong we see the the West’s involvement in Southeast Asia. Pyle sincerely and innocently loves her. He deals with Fowler, who offers Phuong so little. She’s like a servant and whose job could end whenever he’s called back.

Fowler lies to her, has cheated on his wife and while I didn’t like or respect him, he was the most perceptive observer in the book. He saw how flimsy and immature Pyle’s views on democracy, world affairs and Vietnam were. He also is fully aware of the selfishness of his relationship with her, but does nothing for her. While Pyle offered Phuong marriage, love and respect as well as future prosperity, his simplistic ideas about politics led to many deaths including his own. Insulated from reality by his optimism and blind trust in a handful of books, Pyle epitomized the idea that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

Throughout the story Phuong is distant and opaque throughout the book. Other than her penchant for buying scarves, we know so little of what Phuong really thinks. Pyle and Folwer probably didn’t know her all that well either. Phuong never complains to her sister or anyone about her life direction. She’s willing to forego decision-making and leave that to her sister or Pyle or Fowler.

What engaged me most was Greene’s style and the complexity of characters and plot. I didn’t know anything about Vietnam in the 1950s and this book made me appreciate that history more.

A few favorite quotations

“So it always is: when you escape to a desert, the silence shouts in your ear.”

“Suffering is not increased by numbers. One body can contain all the suffering the world can feel.”

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The End of the Affair

end of the affair My online bookclub read Graham Greene‘s masterful The End of the Affair. I love how he makes Christian theology and faith real and meaningful to his characters – even nonbelievers. I’m impressed that he can make unlikeable people engaging despite their flaws. He captures Bendrix, the narrator, Sarah (the wife/mistress), Henry (the cuckolded husband) and the priest and the atheist preacher in such a way that you feel that God really does love them and us when we’re so flawed.

Here are some more thoughts:

I read this book years ago, but don’t remember how long ago. I now realize that it’s a book for mature readers, or one that the over 30 (maybe 35) crowd must get much better than young adults.

I loved how Greene writes from the point of view of an ordinary man, i.e. not a monster or villain, but a middle class, educated man who must seem quite normal to all around him and how he fills this man with self-acknowledged, un adulterated hate. It’s bold and honest. My guess is few if any writers today would deal with such a strong emotion without overdoing it or making the character implausible.

I loved how theology is absolutely in the water, air and earth of this world. The characters, all non-believers for most of the book, grapple with sophisticated ideas about God in a deep, unflinching way. Again this is bold and I don’t see it much in the modern era. I wonder how an atheist would take this book. Many seem to like their Christians to be simple-minded, superstitious fools (straw men)  and a good many of us just don’t fit that mold. Since Greene carefully chose his characters’ traits and background I wonder who his imagined audience was. Was he trying to show non-believers the Christian God more so than to write for “the choir”?

I thought the writing was so masterful and the phrasing strong and riveting. That made the book a “quick” read, while there were also several passages I underlined and hope to remember or come back to.

There is amazing power and significance in a love story with a “sad” ending. (Yet is the break up of an affair sad? I think Greene would say no. I’d agree.) Because we have so few stories that have the courage to take this route, readers and viewers don’t get to experience this catharsis and emotion. It’s quite sophisticated to have an audience experience a character walking away from a relationship. The marketers don’t understand that they’re stunting American audiences’ emotional growth by mainly (only) giving us stories that provide the happy endings that young people crave. I just showed one of my classes Once, a film where the couple doesn’t wind up together. It’s a beautiful, compelling story, rather noble actually.

I’ve been digging around the internet and found some articles on the book. I’m plowing through one scholarly article that looks at desire and desire. It’s quite erudite so it’s slow reading, but I think it’s worth it. I’ll offer more insights soon.

There’s a recorded version of the book with Colin Firth as the narrator, which should be worthwhile and there’s a fairly recent movie that changed the ending, which I won’t bother with.